In 2021 we will be celebrating the 500th Year of Christianity in the Philippines. Understandably, the icon that will go with that celebration will be the Santo Nino de Cebu. It was the very first image of Christ ever to be introduced to the natives of these islands. We are told by historians that Magellan had gifted the couple Rajah Humabon and Reyna Juana with the image of the Infant Jesus in 1521 on the day they were baptized. Forty-four years later, in 1565, when the Spaniards returned to these island under the leadership of Legaspi, the missionaries rediscovered the same image of the Santo Nino which they had preserved, and which had now inspired a pious devotion by the natives of Cebu.
The coming of the Santo Nino as the very first icon through which Jesus was introduced to us Filipinos could not have been a mere coincidence. For me, it could only mean that we as Filipino Catholics, are called to find our life and mission as a Philippine Church, neatly represented by this beloved icon: we are called to be the little Children Jesus asks his disciples to be. Remember that scene in the Gospel of Mark 9:35-37, on their way to Jerusalem, how the disciples were arguing among themselves who of them was the greatest? Remember how Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of true greatness? Jesus took a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Maybe that is why the Christian faith is now being reintroduced to many European countries, not by priests and religious, but by overseas Filipino Workers, by lowly housemaids and domestic helpers who are making the European Churches alive again!
Jesus also said in Mark 9:37 “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Perhaps that is also why abortion is something we can never imagine to be compatible with our faith as Filipino Christians. We welcome every child given to each family as a gift from God. We never regard them as just “another mouth to feed”, even if welcoming a child may entail a lot of sacrifices for the family. Of course this does not mean that we will just encourage irresponsible parenthood either. Christian parenthood is not just about welcoming children but more importantly about the commitment to raise them into decent and dignified children of God. My own parents welcomed 13 children. I was just number 10. And you know what my late mother’s name was? BIENVENIDA. You know what BIENVENIDA in Spanish means? WELCOME. She and my father welcomed all thirteen of us; but they also committed themselves to raising all thirteen of us into productive citizens of this country, with not a single one of us turning into a liability to society.
Our devotion to Santo Nino is about consciously putting children at the center of our life as a a Church. We do this not just to bless the children during the feast of Santo Nino, but more importantly, to present them as the FUTURE of the Church and the IMAGE OF THE WAY OF LIFE that we have learned from Jesus.
THE CHILDREN AS THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH
Our Churches will have no future the moment we start to exclude the children, the moment we declare that the faith is for adults only. Look what happened to most Churches in Europe, how most of them have turned into museums, how during Sunday Masses you have only the elderly people. They get to be filled no longer by worshippers but by tourists. It was when they started treating children as a disturbance inside the Church that their Churches became silent. Yes, by getting rid of the noise of children they ended up with empty Churches.
A Church without children has no future. We understand, therefore, why Jesus got angry when he learned that his disciples were driving away the mothers who wanted to bring their children to Jesus. Remember what He said in Mark 10:14-15, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he did something that cannot even be done anymore in most parishes in Europe and America; in Mark 10:16 we are told, Jesus “embraced them and blessed the children, placing his hands on them.” Now it’s NO TOUCH, KEEP OFF THE CHILDREN.
In the context of the abominable cases of abuse of minors committed by some Church leaders, this act of tenderness expressed by Jesus to the children is no longer possible; and this is very sad. The moment the parents lose their trust and respect for priests because of sexual abuse of minors, they will stop bringing their children to Church. And who are accountable for that? Not the parents but the priest-abusers! Pope Francis is right in calling on all bishops around the world to make sure that our parishes are absolutely safe zones for children. We should not forget that Jesus reserved his harshest warning against child abusers! He said in Matthew 18:6 “Whoever leads any one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
THE CHILDREN AS ICONS OF JESUS’ WAY OF LIFE
Our Gospel today tells us that Thomas reacted strongly when he realized that Jesus was saying goodbye to them. Apparently, Jesus had said, “Where I am going you know the way.” And Thomas replied in John 14:5, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Remember what Jesus said to Thomas? John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Next it was Philip who reacted. Because Jesus spoke about going to the Father through him, he said in John 14:8, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” And Jesus said in vv. 9-10, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? … Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? …the Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”
Christian Discipleship is the way of spiritual childhood. As we get old physically, we’re supposed to become younger spiritually. We’re supposed to grow spiritually into infants who are being prepared to be born again, as Jesus said to Nicodemus in John3.
The Santo Nino is more than an icon; it is a profound way of life and spirituality that sums up for us what it means to be a disciple of Christ. This devotion was developed by the Carmelites and became a full-blown spirituality, especially by St. Therese of Lisieux (whom we know better as Therese of the Child Jesus). Therese called the Santo Nino spirituality the LITTLE WAY. Taking her inspiration from Mark 10:15, which says, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” It means, the kingdom of God is not accessible to people who do not attain the spiritual childhood Jesus is talking about as a way of life.
If we follow the Way of Jesus, we follow what Therese calls the Little Way, or the Path of Littleness, meaning, the way of Humility and Servanthood. Remember how he said this to James and John who had also been bitten by the virus of power-seeking? How they wanted to be seated on his right and on his left, and how Jesus said in Mark 10:43 “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” For Jesus, the way to true greatness is not power but humility; not lording it over, but servanthood.
Nowadays, people want to remain young, even as they grow old physically. They think they can look young by getting a face lift, or by wearing trendy clothes. You know what really makes us age spiritually? When we learn to hold grudges in our hearts, when refuse to forgive, when we become resentful, envious, stressed out by worries and fears and the constant need to compete in order to be better than others.
The signs that we’re getting old not just physically but also spiritually are, when we are annoyed by children and are distracted by their presence, when we exclude them and refuse to count them in. Ask yourselves, “when do we make our activities“for adults only.”?” When they have to do with pornography, violence, cruelty, indecent talks and conversation, cuss words. We exclude children because we have reason to be ashamed to be seen or heard by children that way. It is when we do shameful things we do not want children to imitate. On the other hand, when do we become gentle, affectionate and well-mannered? When we are in the company of children!
The Santo Nino is the “little way” Therese had learned from Jesus. Only people who can humble themselves before God will receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Only people who know the way of humility will be able to understand the lowly, the last, the least and the lost in society. Only those who can accept their littleness before God can understand and express compassion for the “little ones”. The proud and the arrogant, because they think too highly of themselves, are the ones who tend to be cruel and oppressive, they tend to step down on the lowly like dirt. Those who behave this way must be reminded of the warning of Mama Mary in the Magnificat, “He casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.” The Lord does not do this in order to make the slaves of today the tyrants of tomorrow. He casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly not to reverse their situation but to put them all on equal footing, not as masters and slaves, but as brothers and sisters as fellow children of God.
Therese also tells us that those who learn the Little Way will never feel terror or negative fear before the Lord. Like little children, they will leap with joy and excitement and not be afraid to fall because they know that the loving Father will catch them in his arms and enfold them in his loving embrace.
Pit Senor! Viva Santo Niño!